Beneath the Willows – Chapter 4

“Monsieur Laiche,” Phillipe said once everyone was inside of the house. The women had withdrawn into the parlor, where Mammie was entertaining Celeste and Marguerite with tea and pastry.

“Might I have a word?” he said.

“Of course, Monsieur, so long as you call me Tomas.” Phillipe nodded, as Tomas continued. “We’ve known one another long enough to drop the formality of title.”

“As you wish,” Phillipe said. He lifted an eyebrow. “Shall we?”

Tomas turned to one of the household staff, just as old as Zeek. “John, please inform mother that Phillipe and I will be in the library discussing business.”

The gray headed man nodded and walked into the parlor without a word.

“This way,” Tomas said, motioning Phillipe into the library. It was just across the foyer and opposite the parlor. Once inside, he slid the white, wooden door closed. “Brandy?”

“Of course,” Phillipe said with a nod. He turned toward a wall of books, scanning the mahogany shelves as if looking for a specific title. “Your father built a fine collection here,” he said, pulling a large, leather-bound tome from the shelf. “Homer, Plato. Impressive.”

“Yes,” Tomas said, pouring brandy from an Irish crystal decanter into two crystal glasses cut with an ivy motif. “Father loved to read. I admit to enjoying a good book myself, every now and then.” He offered one of the glasses to Phillipe, who then lifted in toast.

“To Francois,” Phillipe said. “May he rest in peace.” Tomas returned the toast. “To Father,” he said, then drank – watching Phillipe over the top of his glass.

“Let me get to the point, Tomas,” Phillipe said, throwing back his brandy in one, massive swallow. “By taking Marguerites hand in marriage, you’ll be tying yourself to the largest string of plantations in southern Louisiana.”

“Only through marriage,” Tomas said, sipping his brandy.

“Still,” Phillipe said, walking over to the decanter. Before Tomas could offer, he poured himself another drink. Tomas frowned at both the pouring, as well as the size of the pour.

“It will give you quite an advantage, especially for your trading company.”

“Perhaps,” Tomas said, shrugging, trying not to show too much interest in what Phillipe was saying. “I’ve not given it much thought, to be honest. I’m more concerned for Mother’s health and well-being at the moment.”

“Of course,” Phillipe said, sipping his brandy this time and waving a hand. “How is she these days?” A feint. It made Tomas smile. He’d never had the opportunity to haggle with Phillipe himself. Always the manager.

“Well enough, I suppose,” Tomas said. “With Father gone, her work load has dramatically increased.” He sighed, whether from the game or from reality, it felt the right thing to do.

“She wants you back here, running the Willows?” Phillipe said, watching Tomas with hawkish eyes. Laughter slipped under the door, causing both men to turn in the direction of the parlor.

“Sounds like they’re enjoying themselves,” Phillipe said. “Good. It gives us more time to get to know one another.” Tomas smiled and nodded once. His glass now empty, he refilled it, making sure to keep himself near the decanter.

“The Willows is important to Mother,” Tomas said. He motioned to an over-stuffed arm chair. “Have a seat.” Phillipe nodded, then sat. Tomas chose a rosewood, high-backed armchair with green, velvet upholstery.

“It’s why I’m back.”

“The Two Oceans is doing quite well,” Phillipe said. “I imagine it’s a difficult decision you’ll need to make regarding which will be your focus.”

“Indeed it is,” Tomas said, looking into his glass as if lost in memory. Let’s see where Phillipe is leaning. “One I’ve yet to make.” He looked up at Phillipe.

“You manage quite a few enterprises. Any thoughts on the matter?” Phillipe’s mouth lifted into a ‘slight’ smile.

“Well,” the older man said, nodding and looking into his glass. “Now that you mention it, I do have some ideas.” He leaned back in the chair, creating a creaking, complaining crack from the wood.

“The way I see it,” Phillipe said. “You have one of two choices: divest yourself of the Willows, or of the Two Oceans.” He shook his head. “I can’t imagine you’d have success managing both.”

“Ah,” Tomas said, nodding as he took a sip of brandy. Matching one’s opponent was a trick of the trade. It created a physical impression of agreement. “Divest one. Interesting.”

“That’s a terribly difficult choice,” he said. “The Willows is home, the place I was born. Mother and Father bled on this land building it into what it is today.”

Phillipe nodded. “Very true,” he said. “Not many along the river can say that these days.”

“Whereas I had an instrumental hand in building the Two Oceans,” Tomas said, swirling his brandy in the glass – watching it spin. “Father may have started it, but I built it.”

He sighed, feeling tension build behind his temples. “It would be painful to give it up.”

Phillipe opened his arms, holding the almost empty glass in his right hand. “A tough choice,” he said. “Family or self? You can’t have both, it seems.”

Tomas stared at Phillipe, who seemed to be pleased with the direction of conversation. Tomas ran his fingers through his hair, smoothing it back several times. Let’s see what he’s after.  

“Family is thicker than blood,” Tomas said, repeating something he heard once along the wharf. “Perhaps I sell the company and move to the Willows.” He looked into his glass, yet watched Phillipe’s reaction over the rim.

“I’m sure I could get a good price for the Company, especially with New Orleans being named the fourth largest seaport in the world.”

“Madame Laiche would like that,” Phillipe stated just a bit too short. “And it IS your home.” He smiled and sipped his brandy. “Perhaps that makes the most sense.”

“However,” Tomas said. “She’s getting old, Phillipe. Life in the city might do her some good. Free her from the responsibility of taking care of so many people.”

“It would be difficult,” Phillipe said, leaning forward, his face suddenly serious. “Do you think she’d agree to such a thing?” Got you, Tomas thought. The man’s tone was too pleased. You want the Willows.

“It would take time,” Tomas said. “Perhaps a year or two.” He waved his hand. “After my marriage to Marguerite, of course.”

“She could assist with the transition,” Phillipe said eagerly. “Help smooth things over with Madame Laiche.” Tomas nodded.

“She’s good that way, my Marguerite. Handles politics almost as well as your mother.”

“Why, just the other day, she helped stop a near riot between Brody and the field hands.”

“Indeed?” Tomas said. Marguerite did something other than gossip? Phillipe nodded.

“That she did!” Phillipe said. “Marched herself up right between the drones and Brody, then held up both hands – stopping each side in their tracks.” He waved his glass in the air.

“Why would she do that?” Tomas said, cocking his head. Interesting.

“Come to find out,” Phillipe said. “Brody was holding back rations.”

“You don’t say,” Tomas said, nodding as he listened.

I do,” Phillipe said. “He was mad because one of the field niggers hid his daughter from him.” Phillipe laughed, then drank the last swallow of his brandy.

“Brody likes his meat dark, if you know what I mean,” Phillipe said. “So there was no way some nigger slave was going to stop him from getting his meal.”

“How did Marguerite settle the dispute?” Tomas said, reaching back to grab the decanter. He took Phillipe’s glass, filled it then filled his own.

“She made Brody promise to ask,” Phillipe said. “And if he didn’t, she would fire him and make him work the fields with the niggers!”

Tomas almost spit his brandy as his sipped. “She did what?”

Phillipe nodded. “She did indeed,” Phillipe said. “That’s my Marguerite. Feisty as one of my prize thoroughbreds. The niggers got their rations, Brody begged for his treat and the revolt was settled.”

“Impressive,” Tomas said. It was. He had no idea Marguerite was skilled in negotiations. Maybe she wasn’t that bad of a choice after all. Phillipe laughed as he drank, pausing to look into the glass as if remembering a joke.

“What is it?” Tomas asked. Phillipe shook his head.

“Nothing, really,” he said. He chuckled again

“Well,” he continued. “After she left, Brody came to me.”

“I see,” Tomas said.

“Let’s just say, I made certain Brody never had to beg for what he wanted. Ever again.” He looked up at Tomas and winked.

“Though you have to admit, she was good, wasn’t she?” He laughed.

“She was at that,” Tomas said slowly, swallowing his brandy hard. What a bastard.

“Now back to the Willows,” Phillipe said. “Have you considered a selling price? The quality of production, the location and the land you have here should bring top dollar.”

“Do you think so?” Tomas said. He took a drink, his mind still focused on the brutality of Phillipe. While he’d never seen the man mistreat his slaves, rumors claimed it was a daily occurrence. Now he had confirmation.

Phillipe nodded. “Of course,” he said. “Hell, I might even buy it myself.” Tomas froze mid thought, meeting Phillipe’s eyes as he considered what the man was saying.

“If I did that,” Phillipe continued. “Mammie wouldn’t have to leave. She could stay here, while you and Marguerite resided in the city.”

“That is,” Phillipe said. “If you marry Marguerite.” He shrugged. “What do you think, Tomas?”

“It’s an interesting idea,” Tomas said slowly, allowing his mind to process the thought. He scanned the library, taking in various details that he’d grown up with – details that would belong to Phillipe if he sold.

Wooden bookends, carved in the shape of baying hounds, held a row of classical, leather-bound literature. A hand-sized, white marble bust of Caesar – from Rome, his father once said, sat atop the mantle. The Irish decanters, a painting of two clipper ships and a drawing by James Audubon of three fox squirrels chasing one another beneath a Willow tree. That was his favorite.

“I must admit,” Tomas continued. “The notion of mother staying on the land she loves is enticing.” He took a drink. “Assuming I care to sell.”

“How could you not?” Phillipe replied. “Your company will collapse without you at its helm. Like you said, you built it from nothing.’ He shook his head. “There’s no way I’d ever sell that golden goose.”

“It’s quite profitable,” Tomas said. “I’ll give you that.” He cocked his head. “But what if I could run both? Why would I sell?”

Phillipe laughed. “What do you know about running a plantation, Tomas? Just because your father managed well, doesn’t mean you can.” He shook his head.

“You know shipping, my boy. Stick to that, it’s what you’re good at.” He smiled, taking another sip of his brandy.

“Leave the plantations to the planters.”

“I could always marry someone else,” Tomas said. “Connect myself to another legacy planter. Perhaps the Gaudet’s. They know sugar quite well.”

“Theophile Guadet?” Phillipe said, blurting out a snorting laugh. “That man’s an idiot of the highest order. The only reason he’s successful is because he has an intelligent manager.”

He waved a dismissive hand. “Besides, his daughter is the size of a barn and has the face of a horse.” Phillipe shrugged.

“But if that’s what you want, suit yourself, Tomas,” Phillipe continued. “It still doesn’t solve the issue of managing two different companies.”

On this, Phillipe was correct. He didn’t know a thing about running a plantation. The ten years he’d lived in New Orleans was spent building the Two Oceans Trading Company. He knew the price of sugar, how to sell at market and ship it overseas.

Growing sugarcane, harvesting it, dealing with slaves  – everything associated with plantation life was beyond his knowledge.

It was a serious dilemma, and Phillipe knew it. In fact, Tomas was certain the only reason he considered offering Marguerite to Tomas was to gain control of the Willows.

Tomas slammed back his brandy, more from anger at being beaten in the game, than from the choices he faced. Losing burned him in the stomach like cheap rotgut.

“No,” Tomas said. “Mademoiselle Gaudet is the kindest woman I know, but that doesn’t inspire me to marry her.”

“Your mother understands the issues,” Phillipe said. “It’s why we’re here.” Tomas narrowed his eyes.

“My mother,” he said. Phillipe nodded.

“By linking yourself to me,” Phillipe said. “You gain allies and strength. By pushing us away…” He let that question hang and shrugged.

“The Willows will be in good hands,” Phillipe said. “Your mother can stay here and you can come visit anytime you wish. This is the only way that both the Two Oceans, and the plantation remain strong.”

Phillipe opened his arms. “Not too difficult a decision, if you ask me.” Tomas opened his mouth to speak, but stopped – choosing to nod quietly instead. It made sense, Christ but it did.

A bell hanging from a red, silk sash near the fireplace jingled, filling the library with soft, church-like chimes.

“Lunch,” Tomas said. “Shall we join the ladies?”

Phillipe nodded, his cheeks significantly rosier than before. “Of course, my boy! I’m famished.”

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